The Gift: A Song of Love
The Gift: A Song of Love
There were about a hundred of us standing around in a room, the same room we had been in since early morning. Only now it was evening. We had spent the day listening and learning about the significance of life. At that moment, we were about to become a chorus of voices singing a song, a song to Kimberly, a child we didn't know. What we did know was that Kimberly was terminally ill, and we were singing a song written just for her, a song of love to Kimberly. It was to be recorded and then presented to her -- a special, sacred gift.
At first, everyone seemed tired. After all, it had been a long day. Then we began to sing, and as we did, bodies started to sway, feet began to tap, and faces began to change. All the sadness was removed from the faces of those in the room, and instead there was true joy, a liberation of the spirit.
Shabbat Shirah provides that same kind of experience. Each year in the middle of winter, we are called upon to hear the singing voices of liberation, the voices of our ancestors who stood at the shore of the sea. After generations of sadness and depression, of what seemed like a certain death of the spirit, the Israelites suddenly broke forth in song and renewed their spiritual quest for meaning and significance.
Shabbat Shirah is one of only a few Shabbatot that have a specific name. In Parashat B'shalach, it is the Shirah (the Song) that gets top billing because the rabbis recognized that song is the most liberating of all activities. Song is the medium that uplifts the soul from the mundane to the holy.
A colleague of mine once told me that "he who sings prays twice." It's true. Those who sing do pray twice -- first, to express a yearning to be free; and a second time, to celebrate the freedom that has been attained. That is why we sing the words of the "Song at the Sea" (Exodus 15) each and every time we pray. We remember our ancestors, who yearned to be free, and we celebrate their liberation and ours. Rabbi Pinchas Peli tells us that "our prayers consist mostly not of petition and supplication but of hymns and praises." The Chasidim understood this, as demonstrated by the niggunimthey developed, and the great composers of our tradition understood this, as is evident in the masterful works that they created.
When reading the "Song at the Sea," every Jew should ask himself or herself: Am I a member of that chorus of Israelites who passed through the sea? Can I sing a song of liberation based on my life's experiences and accomplishments? What melody courses through my body as I undertake my life's journey and learn from my people's dramatic history?
No song has greater meaning and significance for us as Jews than this one. And no experience is a greater gift than the liberation of the soul from slavery to freedom. Celebrate this gift of Shabbat Shirah, which is a song of love from the people of Israel to our God of redemption, liberation, and freedom.
Bennet F. Miller is senior rabbi at Anshe Emeth Memorial Temple in New Brunswick, NJ.
The third word in this week's portion, B'shalach, is "Pharaoh." The third-from-last word in the parashah is "Amalek." The verses between these words render an account of a people who are brilliantly led yet who constantly go astray, who are shown the way time and again but always get lost. But the text also underscores an important evolution in our painful growth as a people: The Children of Israel and their leader, Moses, are the proof text for all the therapists who advise their patients that "if you do what you've always done, you'll get what you always got." Although it takes a battle with Amalek to change our destiny, this is what Moses eventually learns.
God can't do enough for this mixed multitude. He leads them one way, then another. He provides them with a pillar of cloud by day to guide them and a pillar of fire by night to light their way. (Exodus 21) The Divinity becomes a regular auto club, affording them the best directions and the latest traffic conditions. But at the first sign of trouble -- the appearance of Pharaoh's chariots -- they become bickering babies. Exodus 14:11-12 contains some of the richest dialogue in the Torah and is certainly the first example of humorous sarcasm in the Bible, if not in the history of literature. In essence the people complain: "Oh, we understand, Moses, that there were no cemeteries in Egypt. The funeral homes weren't good enough for you, and you wanted us to have a better selection of caskets, so you brought us out here to die." They follow up with some prophetic wisdom that they had never before expressed: "We told you it would be like this!"
Our people may have left Egypt, but they cannot effect an exodus from the codependent relationship with God into which they are locked. Like a frustrated parent, God tries everything: God parts the sea. God turns bitter water to sweet. God rains down quail, and God pours down manna. First God directs Moses, and then God scolds Moses for seeking direction. But the more God does, the more God infantilizes the people. Like children, the Israelites sing when things are going well, and they cry and complain whenever the going gets rough.
Finally, recognizing the need for the Israelites to find a way from dependence to independence, Moses changes the rules. In response to the attack of the Amalekites at Rephidim, he does something new. Rather than give the people a chance to complain, he preempts them. He even preempts God: Without asking God, coaxing God, cajoling God, or scolding God -- in fact, saying nothing whatsoever to God -- Moses deputizes Joshua, an unknown, never before mentioned in the Torah, to choose men to fight and puts himself in the background, watching the battle from a hill. In chapter 14, we read: Vayet Mosheh et yado, "And Moses held out his hand over the sea." (Exodus 14:21), whereas in Exodus 17:11, we read: Yareem Mosheh yado, "When Moses held up his hand." In the first instance, Moses expects God to intervene; in the second, Moses invites God to join the fray. Thus Moses gives the people ownership of their own destiny and, by choosing Joshua, the realization that leadership can come from somewhere other than from God. And for the first time, the people respond not by complaining but by acting. Those groaning, growling grumblers may become grown-ups after all!
Earlier I mentioned the third and third-to-last words of the parashah. If we now consider the first two and the last two words together, a poignant phrase frames the text and illuminates its meaning: Vay'hee b'shalach meedor dor, "And it was that [God] sent them from generation to generation." From Egypt we were indeed sent, as Rabbi Miller writes, to "sing a song of liberation" for all time, throughout the world.
Marshall Portnoy is the cantor at Mainline Reform Temple Beth Elohim in Wynnewood, PA.
B’shalach, Exodus 13:17—17:16
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 478–507; Revised Edition, pp. 431–461;
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 379–406
Haftarah, Judges 4:4–5:31
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 703–709; Revised Edition, pp. 462–467